Prather fuels Florida comeback


Florida forward Casey Prather drives to the basket against Alabama during the second half on Saturday.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:44 p.m.

It was hard to believe that this was happening to a team with so much experience, with so much swagger at home, with so much to play for on a Saturday afternoon. But it was happening.

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Florida forward Casey Prather drives to the basket against Alabama during the second half on Saturday.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

They were losing, but it was more than just the eight-point deficit with 12:23 to play.

They looked terrible. They looked slow and uninspired. Forget scoring points, they couldn’t complete passes on the perimeter. The second half started with an Alabama possession where the Tide had four offensive rebounds before scoring.

“I thought we were going to play the whole second half on defense,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.

And he was frustrated. Boy, was he frustrated. That’s why after the game he talked about the swing in emotions. Because before he could be proud of the way his team fought back and went on a 27-5 run to beat Alabama, he had to be angry first.

Angry enough to bench Mike Rosario for much of the second half after he tried to showboat a one-handed pass when a simple bounce pass would have meant two points. Angry with himself for not getting his team ready to play amidst all of “the drama” surrounding this game.

“We were emotionally drained,” said Donovan. “We were exhausted. We were a step slow. We were distracted.”

So much was going on. Two players were returning to action, but they really weren’t close to being back. Will Yeguete gave Florida minutes but little else and told Donovan after the game he was “petrified” to be back. Michael Frazier II offered almost nothing after missing two days of practice with back spasms.

So it was the six-man team again for Florida. Except that not all six showed up ready to play.

“Scottie (Wilbekin) wasn’t himself. Kenny Boynton wasn’t himself,” Donovan said. “Patric Young wasn’t himself. (Erik) Murphy was a step slow.”

Fortunately for the Gators, Casey Prather and a throaty crowd provided the energy to fuel a comeback in the biggest game of the year for this team.

It was big because Alabama came in only a game behind UF. And it got bigger later Saturday when Arkansas beat Kentucky. Florida has now clinched a share of the SEC title and can win it outright Wednesday against Vanderbilt in the O’Connell Center.

Maybe it was good that it was so difficult. Conference championships aren’t supposed to be easy. This team made it look easy earlier in the season, but in the game that earned them a ring and a trophy, of course it had to be hard.

They couldn’t have won this game without Prather, and I’m not sure they could have won it anywhere but the O’Dome.

Prather bounced back from a blow to the head at Tennessee that required five stitches to score 10 points and grab nine rebounds. Most importantly, he made all four of his free-throw attempts.

They were momentum free throws, if there is such a thing. The first time he went to the line, Florida trailed by six. The second time, the Gators trailed by one.

He came into the game having made 3 of 11 in SEC play.

“I just had to focus,” Prather said. “I shoot 100 a day in practice so there’s no reason to miss any free throws.”

The free throws were huge, but they were only part of the Casey Prather Supernova that turned this game around. During the eight-minute run that he started with a lob pass to Young for a dunk and ended with a defensive rebound, Prather scored eight of his points, grabbed four of his rebounds and drew a charge.

And on a day when the Gators couldn’t make 3s (2 of 13), were being outebounded at one point by eight (they ended up with a 33-31 advantage) and had more turnovers than assists, they found a way to win.

“We knew we had to turn it up,” Young said.

That’s the mystery with young people. Here was a huge moment in the season, and it seemed to overwhelm them. They were abandoning their formula for winning.

“It’s not complicated.” Donovan said. “We keep teetering with that formula.”

Maybe it was the noon start. Maybe it was the returning players. Maybe it was playing a team that was dangerous and hungry.

Whatever it was, Florida looked slower than an old man with a walker trying to read a text. On the road, this game was probably gone. But at home, it had a chance.

“They really turned their intensity level up,” said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, who has seen these kinds of runs from both benches during his career. “When you’re a young team, sometimes the moment gets to be a really big moment.”

It was almost too big for Florida.

But in the end, it revealed the character of this team.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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